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Sibling Ties Are Worth Preserving

from Spring 1999 Adoptalk

by Diane Riggs

"I relaxed," said one foster child when asked what he did after finding out that he was to be placed for adoption with his older brothers. Yes, sibling interaction is often spiced with conflict. Yes, competition between siblings can be intense. But through the years, no bond is typically longer, stronger, or more comforting than that between siblings—especially those who are separated from other birth family members through foster care or adoption. Fortunately, child welfare professionals and legislators are becoming increasingly sensitive to sibling issues and are finding ways to help keep siblings together and connected.

Background

"It seems so obvious," said Cindy Deal, executive director of Northeast Ohio Adoption Services (NOAS) when asked why child welfare professionals should work to keep siblings connected. "They belong together." NOAS recently received federal funding to support efforts to reunite sibling groups and recruit families for siblings.

For children who enter foster care, Deal explains, separation from birth parents is traumatic, and separation from siblings who share a common history is a devastating, ultimately isolating loss. As an adoptive mother of three siblings wrote in a letter to NOAS:

My children had nothing left but each other ... [and] had formed a tremendous bond with each other. This bond was a great deal closer than most kids because they needed each other to survive.... My children have an appreciation of each other most siblings don't form until later in life. They have learned to love and trust each other. They accept their differences. They celebrate in each others' victories. Taking away the only people they trust is devastating and does nothing more than increase their distrust of everyone else.

Separated siblings are robbed of future family connections as well; they may never know their nieces and nephews, and their children will miss out on knowing aunts and uncles. Regina Kupecky, a therapist at the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio and co-author of Adopting the Hurt Child, adds that separated siblings lose pieces of themselves when they lose touch, and consequently have a harder time building an identity. A sibling who is adopted when his or her brothers and sisters remain in foster care may also experience guilt—a feeling that he or she has abandoned the other siblings—compounded with a sense of having been abandoned by his or her birth parents. Separated siblings experience loss piled on loss.

Recent newspaper headlines told of a four-year-old Massachusetts boy, "Hugo L.," who started the new year by tearfully bidding his six-year-old sister farewell after the state's Supreme Judicial Court upheld a juvenile court decision to remove him from the foster family who had adopted his sister and taken care of him since he was two. While the boy's lawyers try to get a hearing with the U.S. Supreme Court, Hugo will live with his aunt in New Jersey. Associated Press stories suggest that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of keeping Hugo with his sister, an estimated 35,000 siblings could be reunited nationwide.

But why are siblings separated in the first place? One reason, states Kupecky, is that states lack the up-front money to place siblings together in foster care. Once separated in foster care, children are much less likely to be placed together in an adoptive placement. In addition, as outlined in Adopting the Hurt Child, workers may be unaware that foster children have siblings (though statistics suggest that 65 to 85 percent of children who enter foster care have at least one sibling), or may assume that adoptive families want or can handle only one child. Other workers may presume—often erroneously—that children who abuse their siblings or act as a parent to their siblings should be placed separately either for their siblings' or their own good.

Keeping Siblings Together

Since the 1980s, researchers have focused increasing attention on the importance of sibling ties. Siblings who are placed together have been known to transition more smoothly into new homes, and most researchers agree that attachments between siblings are critically important. In recent years, many states have taken action to help siblings stay together.

Below are some suggestions of what states and workers are doing to keep brothers and sisters from being split apart.

1. Legislation, policy, and special programs. As reported in a New York Times article last summer, at least 10 states have programs, laws, or policies that promote sibling placements. In Chicago, a new sibling program run by the Jane Addams Hull House Association pays foster parents an annual salary of $16,000 plus benefits (in addition to the state's monthly payment per child) when they assume care for a group of brothers and sisters. In New York City, a program started in 1997 offers foster parents rent-free housing plus extra money and benefits for taking in sibling groups. Kentucky also offers a financial incentive to foster families who care for siblings, and a pilot program in Florida is trying to find foster placements for siblings using a model similar to the Hull House program.

Other states have legislated policy changes and set public agency goals to help siblings stay together. California, Ohio, Massachusetts, and New York all have laws that allow foster parents to exceed the six-child limit if the move keeps brothers and sisters together. New Jersey has begun a campaign to recruit foster parents for sibling groups, and both Minnesota and Alabama recently began requiring that siblings be placed together whenever possible.

When Kansas privatized its child welfare system in 1996, the state set a series of contract standards for its foster care and adoption providers. One standard states that 65 percent of children with siblings should be placed with a sibling while in foster care. Kansas? adoption provider was charged with meeting a similar goal of placing siblings together in adoptive homes.

2. Mind set. NOAS director Cindy Deal says that if she had her way, review hearing judges would need cause to determine why brothers and sisters should be separated, not why they should stay together. The adoption program director in Kansas shares that philosophy. In Kansas, the program director reviews every request to split siblings in adoptive placements. Working in consultation with other experts, she approves splits only when faced with extenuating circumstances.

Siblings can be placed together in adoptive homes. Though siblings may be split up in foster care (due to the finite number of foster homes and beds), workers and administrators should never underestimate adoptive families? willingness to preserve sibling ties and assume care for multiple children. As one adoption professional put it, "workers need to get out of the foster care mind set."

3. Marketing. To attract families for siblings, agencies need to let families know that groups are available. Whenever possible, photos used for recruiting purposes?in newspaper features, in photolistings, on the Internet?should include all of the available siblings in the same shot. Accompanying descriptions should state that the siblings must be placed together, and suggest how the siblings interact with and care about one another. On Kansas' Internet photolisting (www.kcsl.org/Children.aspx), each sibling's profile page contains a list of other siblings with links to their pages, as well as a starred statement that the siblings are being placed as a group.

4. Tracking and follow-up. Because siblings may come into care and become available for adoption at different times, agencies who wish to preserve sibling ties must find ways to track the location and status of brothers and sisters. As many workers know, the family who adopts one sibling is often more than willing to adopt others who subsequently become available.

5. Financial incentives. Some adoption agencies have also realized the economic benefits of recruiting families who will adopt more than one child. The cost?in time and money?that an agency must expend to find one family for three children, for example, may be much less than the cost of finding three separate families. Families who adopt sibling groups (and who were planning to adopt more than one child) may save themselves the financial and emotional strain of going through the adoption process multiple times.

Keeping Siblings Connected

Even in the best-intentioned agencies, siblings will be placed apart from one another. They may enter foster care at different times, may be part of a group so large that a single foster or adoptive home cannot be found, or may have such intense needs that a single home cannot adequately meet every child?s needs.

Separation does not, however, have to mean disconnection. When children are placed apart, states can mandate visitation, workers can facilitate meetings between siblings, and foster and adoptive parents can strive to see that their children stay in touch with brothers and sisters. If sibling contact is severely compromising a child's health or safety, it is sometimes necessary to suspend interaction, but in most cases siblings need, want, and benefit from regular contact.

Below are some ways to help keep siblings connected.

1. Legislation and policy. In 1996, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) implemented a visitation policy for children in care. The policy states that the Department will schedule visits "among all siblings in substitute care who are placed apart at least twice per month, beginning no later than two weeks after the Department is awarded temporary custody of any sibling." Visitation may, however, be less frequent (or non-existent) if so ordered by a court, if a child does not want contact, if a child?s sibling lives in a residential facility more than 150 miles away, or if a child?s health or safety would be endangered by visits with siblings. Under no circumstance, however, is DCFS or its agencies permitted to restrict contact between siblings as a form of discipline.

Illinois' policy requires that caseworkers, foster parents, and children ages seven and older develop a sibling visitation plan that specifies the frequency and length of, and possibly the location and supervision required for, planned visits. Visitation goals then become part of the children?s case plans, and are subject to examination at each child?s administrative case review. DCFS also encourages caregivers to facilitate contact between siblings—and even promises to pay for postage if siblings wish to stay connected via mail.

In California—a state that already supports accommodations to keep siblings together, or at least connected, in foster care—the governor approved a bill last September that contains provisions aimed at facilitating post-adoptive contact between siblings who are not placed together. Under the new law, recommendations for sibling visitation are to be included in children?s adoption case plans. In addition, if the adoptive parents consent, courts can include information about post-adoptive sibling contact in the adoption order.

2. Old-fashioned technology. Phone calls and letters are still among the most common methods of communicating. Both can bridge great distances, and letters can also include pictures or other mementos to help siblings feel connected.

3. New-fashioned technology. For children who would rather spend time with a computer than a paper and pencil, e-mail is another good way of staying in touch. Online messages can also include pictures and other attachments.

Videoconferencing—a way for people at remote locations to see and hear each other on television monitors—is another option. Videoconference rooms are available at many Kinko?s copy center locations, and on weekends the cost is just $75 an hour per site. For siblings who are placed with two different families states apart, a half-hour videoconference on a weekend would cost each family just $37.50.

4. Respite care. When children are in different homes in the same community, foster or adoptive parents could arrange for siblings to spend time together with the same respite care provider. The parent of one sibling could also volunteer to provide respite services for the parent of another sibling.

5. Therapy. Regina Kupecky suggests that separated siblings may benefit from sharing a therapist as well. Often, she explains, siblings can help each other fill in pieces of their past history?pieces that may help the therapist find more effective ways to treat each child.

6. Special events. When possible, face-to-face contact between siblings is best, and siblings may feel less awkward about reunions if they meet as part of a larger event. For instance, each of the siblings? families could meet at a park for a day of picnicking and playing. Families could also plan group outings to amusement parks or zoos, or other places where siblings and their families can interact and have fun. Families could even investigate the possibility of sending the siblings to a summer camp together.

7. Parental involvement. Kupecky stresses that parents have to be directive and supportive of children?s efforts to stay connected with their siblings. It is not easy to ask parents to both integrate a new child into their family, and help the child maintain contact with birth family members. Children may also feel torn between remaining loyal to their birth family and trying to fit in with their adoptive family. If siblings are to stay connected, parents must help organize activities and provide the nuts and bolts needs (transportation, money, phone access, etc.) that enable contact.

Concluding Thoughts

Peg and Joe Schuler had already adopted two children when they learned that their daughter Tonya's younger brother was available for adoption. Because they were committed to keeping the siblings together, they agreed to adopt Ben. The Schulers have also helped Tonya and Ben stay in touch with two older sisters who have been placed in long-term foster care. Though Tonya thinks Ben is a pest, and Peg sometimes finds it emotionally and logistically challenging to keep her children connected with their older siblings, the effort is paying off.

"Knowing her birth siblings," says Peg, "has helped to make Tonya whole. Many children who are adopted have holes—from lost connections with their birth family members, from abuse, from missing out on nurturing. I can provide the love and nurturing, but I can't plug the other holes unless I can help my children take ownership of their histories. Tonya's and Ben's connection with each other and with their siblings gives them a core sense of who they are and where they come from. With that knowledge and sense of belonging, they can move more confidently into the future."

Bottom line, the best way to keep siblings connected is to keep them together. From the time children enter care, workers and courts should strive to place siblings in the same foster home, and hold fast to the goal of keeping children in the same placement until they can be reunited with birth families or placed in the same adoptive home. Children who are placed in foster care have already endured terrible losses; parents, workers, administrators, and legislators should make sure that foster and adopted children do not lose the brothers and sisters who can help make them feel more whole.


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848
e-mail: info@nacac.org
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